Reflecting on my Trip to the US and Some Insights for ELT

Madhu Neupane

Tribhuvan University

Teaching language also involves teaching of culture. While the profession of ELT in the past mainly emphasized teaching the culture of ‘native’ English speaking cultures (e. g. those of the US or the UK), EFL practitioners have now become increasingly aware of the importance of teaching multiple cultures from around the world and develop learners’ cross-cultural awareness. I also believe that the US culture, for example, is not the culture we should be teaching, but one of the cultures our students need to know about and be aware of as more Nepalese youth opt for higher education in the US and have been more influenced by popular culture developed in the West. The goal of this essay is not to teach American culture or offer pedagogical tactics in teaching students’ non-native culture, but to provide my reflection of experiencing a culture different from the one that I grew up with and shed some lights on how different themes can be important for a critical pedagogy. This is based on my recent visit to a number of US states sponsored by a program called the US Society and Culture.

The central focus of the program ‘US Society and Culture’ under Study United States Institute (SUSI) was America’s reconciliation of cultural and social diversity with national unity. The successes and failures of the United States in achieving this reconciliation was discussed in the program with the help of lectures, panel discussions and accompanied field trips to different places.  North America was founded in the conviction of diversity of its component groups for the establishment of a well ordered society. For the promotion of autonomy for supporting diversity and liberty, decentralization has been applied.  Federalism based on the principle of decentralization seems to be working successfully in America. Richard Pious, Ochs Professor of American Studies, Bernard College and Columbia University highlighted the concept of marble cake federalism in American government. Even with the federal system whole postal service is national and the collection of revenue is highly centralized.  Education has been extremely privatized and not enforced by the states. There is involvement of interest groups in all the areas. Ethnic interests are marginalized as far as possible. People have nationalized culture, very effective internal security system, and conflict management system. American people place high premium on national identity “American creed” and take pride in it.

The management of diversity with national unity has been central to the discussion in academic disciplines, research and literature. In the book Achieving Our Country Richard Rorty emphasizes the Darwinian view of animal in human life. Our sense of community, according to him, is the product of evolutionary course. Communities are always shaped by the ongoing urgency of environment. There is no more reason to live rather than responding to urgency. Rorty’s view is oriented to future and hope for the betterment of community. It leads to the idea of democracy. Everyone is involved in the project of forward looking community. Democracy, in Rorty’s view, is something that is yet to be achieved; it is not something that a country has already achieved. Underlying meaning of his discourse is that unity in diversity is yet to be achieved in complete sense because we need to work for better situation than the one existing now. The play “Other Desert Cities” by John Robin Baitz also shows the tension between independence and control as well transparency and withholding of information.

Principally there is no dominant religion and the state secular. Everyone is free to practice their religion. However, the country in practice seems to be dominated by Christian Protestantism.  According to survey conducted by Pew Forum in Religion and Public life, American people believe that religious faith lead to eternal life. “In God we trust” is printed in notes and coins. Though secularization is the part of democratic process people belonging to Muslim religion are having hard time in America. Khalid Latif, personnel in New York police department emphasized that the country has negative attitude about Muslim today and the situation has been worsen by the narratives produced against Islam though most of them, in his opinion, are based on stereotyping and propaganda. The impact of September 11 has remained the same even today. Even if Latif is a police personnel in New York Police Department, while travelling he has been detained and questioned for 2 to 6 hours. “You are young, you are male and you are Muslim. These three things do not go very well here”, they say. The idea ethnicity and religion is still very powerful. The understanding is that it is essentially being radical posing challenge to the unity in diversity.

America has been very successful in entrepreneurship. In the beginning America was an agrarian society with many people living in the rural areas but now the percentage of individual farming is very low. Because of industrialization, America has been successful in increasing its GDP dramatically by generating wealth through trade and maximizing difference between input and output in production. The factors that have contributed for the economic success in American community, according to George Smith, Professor of Economics in NYU, are: good institutions, vibrant entrepreneurship, sophisticated managerial capacities, enabling political system, and effective financial system.

Joshua Freeman, Professor of History in Queens College mentioned that most Americans lack class consciousness. Whether there are classes is a controversial issue in the United States. Class consciousness is considered to be inherently negative. The idea is that classes do not exist and if they do exist it is a bad thing for society. Many people identify themselves to be middle class which lacks an agreed upon definition. The labor movement is certainly getting weaker and unions are not central to the discussion. The government has passed a lot of rules protecting people to organize.  The legal protection for workers has declined and welfare system has gone down. However, the union has played important roles in the life of workers. Many people associate unfavorable working conditions with weakening unions which are under tight regulation. Government wants to do away with any type of class. However, the class war is going on whether someone is conscious or not. The enemies of union have devised wonderful language and want destroy it at all cost. They want to have right to do anything they like and say that “let the free market decide”. There has been an attack in public sector with the slogan “get government back”. However, the class war is going on whether someone is conscious or not.

Though America is one of the richest countries in world, 15 percent of American people live below poverty line. Though people tend to define poverty in terms of how much they earn, it really depends on income and expense both. Forty-six million people in America live in poverty. Though the country has the highest per-capita income in the world it does not have the lowest poverty rate. Because of the great recession poverty has increased because of the increase in unemployment. Though there is some job training and other job support program by government to reduce poverty have not been very effective because of government cutting public expense refusing to increase taxes. There are many voluntary organizations working in this sector. Since both main parties are capitalist in nature, the program for reducing poverty has not been effective there. Stave Randol, a media analyst highlighted the fact though altogether almost 50 per cent people are affected by poverty; poverty hardly gets any place in media.

Immigration has been a great issue in America from long ago. People have mixed attitude about the effect of migration. Public and private conversation about immigration is different. In public many people talk about it positive impact but in private the situation is mostly opposite. The immigrant museum in Ellis Island in New York shows terrible time people had during great migration. Only the ‘free white’ people were allowed to enter the country and whiteness was considered to be gold standard for citizenship. Unwhiteness was supposed to be the lack of freedom and associated with slavery. It was not only about skin color. In 1816 the immigration law made provision not to allow the people who were prostitutes, idiots, lunatics and Chinese to enter the country because they were not considered to be the right kind of people. The Chinese were the only people to be specified on the basis of the nation. By 1924 Asia Immigration was stopped because they not supposed to be the right kind of people. During the first recession only the white people were included in the welfare program given by the government. Though the immigration act in 1965 threw out the old rule, there is still segregation and the anxiety about unity in American Society because of immigration from all parts of the world.

The main important factor of democracy is that there is a fair and competitive election. There is a significant decline in the voting participant in America. There has been 40% decline in the last 2o years.  There are multiple political identities because people can belong to one coalition this year and the next coalition the next year. The biggest problem is to represent the minority. Though there is the idea that the minority should be prevented from the tyranny of majority, the chances for other parties to come to power are very low. People say that political polarization at this time in America has been the greatest in the history. Republicans want small government playing lesser roles whereas democratic want to increase government participation. Political discourse can manipulate the people in such a way that they even vote against their own interest and the same has happened with the welfare system in this country. There is a dysfunctional aspect in American political system where the money and media matter a lot than the real interest of the people.

Almost all people are using the modern technological devices that information communication technology (ICT). Newspapers are losing their readership since there is increase in the use of internet devices for getting information. The social networking has also been increasing with the use of the internet. The use of technology is narrowing down the differences as well as promoting digital divide. The right to privacy, a highly emphasized right in American constitution, has been threatened due to the use of new technology, for example wire tapping, wiki leaks, etc. There is invasion of privacy from the private sector as well because service providers tend to keep records of conversations for different reasons. There is over concern about the suspicious activities. The high emphasis placed on freedom of speech, in the opinion of American people, has somehow promoted lack of professionalism in media.

Because of automobile and well developed highway system, there has been great increase in suburbs. In 1920s many people used to live in cities while in 1970s the number of people living in suburbs surpassed the people living in cities. Middle class define themselves in terms of space and suburbs provide them with space. Suburbanization began right after the Second World War when the industrialization replaced the labor force in most of the areas. Suburbanization is also associated with race because there were mainly white people living in such suburbs. The earlier suburbs have all become cities now. Highway system and federally subsidized housing system contributed for the boom of the suburbanization.

High divorce rate, single parent family, pregnancy before marriage and women’s giving more priority to work rather than family and marriage have been major issues in family related discourse. The state does not have good welfare system and most children who have completed their graduate education cannot depend on themselves so they come to their parents. They describe this situation as boomerang family anxiety. As per the data of 2005 majority of children born in US are born to immigrants. The race has been a legacy from the very beginning. Socioeconomically the society is still segregated. “Race suicide” (white race), some people think, is taking place because native women have fewer children and immigrants have more children. There was anxiety that the women, if educated would not give birth to many children which would lead to race suicide which still an issue in family related discourse. Through fitter family contest, the idea of larger family was promote in 1970s. Women were expected to have children and live at home. Women at that time came with the idea that if we want to change the world we need to change the perception of people about it and which is possible through the creation of discourse.

Though higher education is free and compulsory, college education is very expensive for many people. I could not believe that the percentage of people completing college education is less than 30 per cent. The percentage of Ph. D holder is not two percent yet. The quality of public schools in comparison to private school is perceived to be very low and the well-off peoples do not send their children to public schools. Performance of school children in average, as mentioned in lectures, is lower in comparison to other developed countries like Canada, the UK, Singapore, Taiwan.

Concluding the reflection, the country’s overall development is really amazing. I was really impressed by cleanliness, well developed highway system, rule abiding system, punctuality, planning and persistence of American people. The things preserved in American museum made me think about our politicians who sold weapons of historical importance in penny. The things that were contrary to my expectation were, lack of security of workers in work place, low quality of education in public schools, and high influence of money and the power of wealthy people to influence decisions that affect life of common people in politics. Besides gaining general knowledge about American society and culture it provided us with the opportunity to learn a lot from the participants who represented 18 different countries. I wish we had similar program to disseminate similar knowledge of our country to other people in the world.

So what then?: I am not saying that this is the best country in the world, but mentioning a number of things that we can learn from for our lives. At the same time we can also question dominant ideologies and practices tied to these issues. A number of themes appeared in my reflection — for example, religion, race, migration, technology, divorce, pregnancy, marriage, environment – and these are important concerns for a critical pedagogy. These are the themes we have been teaching in textbooks produced by the international publishing houses. Learners can compare their cultures against the US or other similar dominant culture. When we teach English following insights from critical pedagogy, we not only teach vocabulary or grammar, but also issues that matter to our lives. For example, I mentioned selling Nepali historical weapons to a US museum. This could be a topic for you critical reading lesson. You can extract a text from the Kathmandu Post “Lost history: Gehendra-made guns sold off to US companyand plan a lesson around this topic. You can also read Bal Krishna Sharma and Prem Phyak’s post regarding how to design lessons around critical social issues.

(Ms. Madhu Neupane is a lecturer at the central department of English education in the University Campus, Kirtipur.)

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